Video games and television have never got on particularly well, largely because for the longest time there was very little overlap between video game enthusiasts and television commissioners. For much of the 21st century, TV has often only turned its attention to video games in news pieces questioning whether video games are responsible for the latest mass shooting, or for otherwise causing modern youth to behave in an unruly fashion: having underage sex, stealing cars, standing on other people’s lawns etc.
This week the BBC decided to tackle the subject of video games in two programmes – one a docudrama, the other a documentary. The Gamechangers, based on David Kushner’s book Jacked: The Outlaw Story of Grand Theft Auto, is a biographical drama film that purports to tell the story of the conflict between Grand Theft Auto developer Rockstar Games and American attorney and anti-video games crusader Jack Thompson. “Are Video Games Really That Bad?” is the latest episode of Horizon, the BBC’s long-running documentary TV series. Both are, predictably, centered around the question of whether violent video games make people violent.
The Horizon episode makes for an interesting watch, despite being based around an age-old debate that, frankly, seemed to have reached its peak several years ago. It’s a broad look at the scientific research surrounding both the positive and negative effects of playing video games, featuring interviews with psychologists in both the video-games-are-good and video-games-are-bad camp and examining the current and potential future uses for video games in brain training and education.
The Gamechangers is something else entirely. The budget apparently only allowed for two well-known actors, so Daniel Radcliffe plays Sam Houser and Bill Paxton plays Jack Thompson – both pretty woefully miscast. Despite being set largely in the United States, the cast is almost entirely British and therefore the film features a stunning array of wobbly attempts at American accents. It also boasts some moments that are simply baffling for anyone who is even vaguely familiar with game development. In one scene, Radcliffe’s character instructs Rockstar co-founder Jamie King (Joe Dempsie) to fly to Rockstar San Diego and tell the team working there that they need to build a new game engine. In the very next scene, the game engine is built. Apparently it’s just that easy.
Rockstar declined to be involved in the writing of Jacked (the author’s note describes the book as “narrative nonfiction”), and no one at the game studio was consulted for the making of The Gamechangers. Indeed, Rockstar filed a lawsuit against the BBC for trademark infringement earlier this year. After the film aired on BBC Two this week, Rockstar didn’t mince words when it came to the company’s official response.
@BBC Was Basil Brush busy? What exactly is this random, made up bollocks?— Rockstar Games (@RockstarGames) September 15, 2015
Even if Rockstar had not thoroughly disowned The Gamechangers, the film comes across as very unconvincing – and not just because of the dodgy accents. Sam Houser is made out to be crazed, tyrannical genius who comes up with all the ideas for Grand Theft Auto and then hands them off to silent, blank-faced programmers to be made a reality. Meanwhile, in a steadfast attempt at non-partisanship, the notorious firebrand Jack Thompson is mellowed out and turned into a well-meaning underdog who stands up, martyr-like, for his beliefs while Take-Two Interactive’s lawyers and a horde of anonymous gamers harangue, victimize and bully him and his family at every turn.
The Gamechangers, like previous attempts to tackle the subject of video games on TV, is weighed down by simultaneously trying to appeal to video game enthusiasts (who are probably more familiar with the subject matter than the filmmakers) and the average non-gaming viewer, who will likely have no idea what is going on, who any of the key players are, or why they should care about a legal spat that ended up going nowhere.
This is one of the inherent problems of trying to capture a medium and community that, partially by virtue of being shunned by more traditional entertainment forms, has become so insular. Create a program that’s too inside baseball, and the average casual or non-gamer will be confused and alienated. Try to explain things better, and the core gaming audience will quickly become bored of being told things that they already know. It’s little wonder that there’s so little video game-based programming to choose from.
That’s not to say that there have been no attempts at capturing the magic of video games on TV. As the medium grew from its humble infancy into a major new industry there were various efforts across the Western world at creating entertainment based around the video game market: GamesMaster in the UK; Starcade and Video Power in the United States; and Video and Arcade Top 10 in Canada. Probably the biggest success story was G4, NBC’s cable channel dedicated to video game content, which was on air for over a decade before finally being closed down at the end of 2014. There’s also Canadian video game review show Reviews on the Run, which is still going strong after thirteen years.
Much like the film industry’s many failed attempts at creating successful video game movies, TV has struggled to find a way of tapping into the gold vein of the video game industry, which this year is predicted to reach $111 billion in global sales. And as TV dithered uncertainly, the Internet sprang up eagerly to provide video entertainment for game enthusiasts.
YouTube star Felix “PewDiePie” Kjellberg now generates somewhere between $3-4 million in annual ad revenue, with a company profit margin of 97%. He is currently closing in on 40 million subscribers, and his videos – which are a mixed bag of vlogs and Let’s Plays – generally garner a few million hits apiece. PewDiePie is merely the biggest name in a sea of YouTubers who produce video game-themed entertainment as their full-time profession, with other notable titans including comedy gaming network Rooster Teeth and charismatic Let’s Player Mark “Markiplier” Fischbach.
Rooster Teeth is particularly interesting since the studio’s original flagship show, Red vs. Blue, was something that could easily have worked as a more traditional TV show, and indeed became just that when the first five seasons were made available on Netflix last year. Set in the same universe as the Halo games and animated using in-game footage from Halo: Combat Evolved, Red vs. Blue‘s humor was accessible even for those unfamiliar with the source material, and was squarely aimed at viewers in the their late teens and twenties. While there have been plenty of TV series based on video games, they have almost exclusively been cartoon shows for kids, with those in charge of programming seemingly oblivious to the fact that adults play video games as well.
Talk show host Jimmy Kimmel made headlines recently when he mocked the concept of YouTube Gaming, a new network dedicated to serving YouTube’s large user base of gamers, expressing bewilderment at the idea of sitting around and watching somebody else play video games. Kimmel jokingly referred to it as the “We Should All Be Very Ashamed Of Ourselves For Failing As Parents Channel,” at which point gamers hastened to prove his point with a barrage of vitriolic insults and wishes for Kimmel’s hastened death.
Putting aside the nasty response to what was ultimately a light and harmless comedy sketch, Jimmy Kimmel Live‘s coverage of YouTube Gaming is emblematic of the attitude that TV networks seem to have towards the concept of eSports, Let’s Plays and other forms of video game-based entertainment shows. Gaming is seen as an almost alien concept, and as such its consumer base was thoroughly monopolized by the Internet when TV failed to tap into it.
British writer and TV host Charlie Brooker, who has created and presented one-off specials like Charlie Brooker’s Gameswipe and How Videogames Changed the World, explained in a 2013 interview the uphill struggle of trying to get video game content on TV.
“In 2009, I did Gameswipe, which was a sort of games-flavoured spin-off of Screenwipe. And it’s bizarre because when it was shown on BBC 4 I think it actually did better than [TV commentary show] Screenwipe in terms of viewership, but there wasn’t much hunger for a follow up from the channel generally. I think that’s because games are still seen as a niche pursuit; you’re constantly bumping up against the assumption that they’re all for teenage boys…
“Lots of people erroneously think that games aren’t for them – even as they’re playing Angry Birds or Words With Friends. So you’re sort of combating all of that, and any TV commissioner’s job is to make sure that they’re making programmes people are going to want to watch. There’s just a reticence there. So as a result most games programming tends to be either aimed at teenage boys or incredibly defensive. How many times have you seen a mainstream news report that begins, ‘these days video games are big business!’ What? That’s still news?”
Video games may indeed be big business, but that doesn’t mean there’s much hope of a sudden surge in video game-based TV content any time soon. A survey carried out last year found that adults aged 18-24 are increasingly choosing online video content over live TV, which means that less people overall are watching live TV and the average age of those viewers is increasing. At this point it’s probably too late for ABC or TBS to start chasing PewDiePie’s audience.
The Gamechangers is currently available in the U.K. on BBC iPlayer.
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